No. 13 Catonsville won a battle of perfectly matched teams, defeating No. 12 Aberdeen, 76-71, for their second straight Class 3A, Region III championship yesterday at Catonsville.
The Comets (22-2) and the Eagles (22-3) were as evenly matched as their records indicated. Both were quick, defense-oriented squads whose players matched up almost exactly man for man.
"It's like playing your mirror image," said Aberdeen coach Ron Petrey.
However, the Comets, who led by as many as 12 early, were the ones to break out of a 59-59 tie with 5:24 left in the game. Eric Prince scored on a pass from Rob Reich and the Comets never trailed again.
The Eagles, riding a 16-game winning streak, shot 5-for-16 the rest of the way.
Reich scored the game winner on a short jumper with 1:10 left. One of three Comets in double figures, Reich scored 19. Teron Owens led the Comets with 24 points and 12 rebounds.
After playing a man-to-man defense the entire game, the Comets switched to a triangle-and-two, putting pressure on Aberdeen's tiring guards Demetrius Harris (12 points) and Paul Smith (17 points).
"Our defense has been our saving grace all year long," said Catonsville coach Art Gamzon. "And I think that was the difference. At the very end that's what enabled us to come back."
Defense also sparked the Comets to an early lead. Aberdeen turned the ball over eight times in the first seven minutes, helping the Comets to a 16-8 lead.
The Eagles also got into foul trouble. Harris and power forward William Griffin (16 points) both picked up their second fouls on first-quarter charges. That forced Petrey to go to a zone, a defense the Eagles rarely use.
Against the zone, Catonsville went to its outside game. Travis Terrell (11 points, six assists), Reich and Owens all hit three-pointers in a 12-2 run. Terrell's short jumper with 2:34 left in the half gave Catonsville its biggest lead of the game, 36-24.
Petrey stopped the Comets' rally with a timeout and sent the Eagles back out in a man-to-man. Aberdeen scored the next five points and continued to pull closer in the third quarter.
Griffin sparked an Eagles comeback with a thundering dunk that brought them within 49-44. Smith, who came off the bench for a sensational game, capped a three-point play and fed Tito Coley to tie the game at 49.
The two squads traded baskets until Griffin capitalized on a turnover to put the Harford County champs ahead 55-53 at the end of the third quarter.
Reich scored the first bucket of the fourth quarter, and the Comets never trailed again. Aberdeen pulled within 70-67 with 1:36 left but couldn't get closer.
"I felt coming in all we needed to do was stay close and we had a chance at the end, but we were physically spent," said Petrey.
The Comets will make their second straight appearance in the final four, but Catonsville hasn't won a title since 1928. Last year, the reached the title game for the fourth time in school history.